What’s Most Important in a Changing Work Culture to Spark Innovation?

By Dr. Mike Loh, CEO, Startingpoint

We all are on a journey, in some way or another. Our journeys are often-time, fueled by our aspirations that the journey provides, including the destination. Innovation, sounding more technical and complex than it actually is, is really about doing things differently to achieve progress. Hence, the desired outcome of a journey.

In corporate jargon, not necessarily definitively, aspiration is synonymous to the Vision and Mission. If the mission statement encompasses the “Whats”, then innovation is usually intrinsic within the statement. Some organizations put greater emphasis by including innovation as their corporate Values. In essence, aspiration provides the purpose of being, and innovations are the means to achieve the desired outcomes. Ultimately, it is about organizational success.

In this article, I would focus on the center-piece — innovation — particularly, its importance and its necessary attributes. Innovation is beyond just the brilliant ideas, it is about bringing organizational impact and success in today’s fast-changing work culture.

The Considerations

Innovation is a team effort1. Creativity is NOT ENOUGH2. Innovation needs a right culture3 organizationally to catalyze and nurture to achieve fruition. It is an end-to-end requirement, not an option.

“Often, the worst thing a company can do, in Levitt’s view, is put innovation into the hands of “creative types”—those compulsive idea generators whose distaste for the mundane realities of organizational life renders them incapable of executing any real project. Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to promote order and routine; they are inhospitable environments for innovation. Those who don’t understand organizational realities are doomed to see their ideas go unrealized. Only the organizational insider—the apparent conformist—has the practical intelligence to overcome bureaucratic impediments and bring a good idea to a fruitful conclusion.”

It is demanding to desire an innovative culture; and it is why many innovations do not survive till the end. Culture building is not a sprint, and sustaining it is an everyday effort, which requires the heavy-lifting of everyone involved. It is already difficult to achieve a culture of teamwork in an organization, what more an innovative culture. This requires for example, strong accountability, flat organizational structure, encouraging the unreasonable and hiring the best fast.

The Reality of Innovation

It is not always the case where you have all the ingredients to make innovation work. Even the great Apple would have their challenges with innovation. The Apple-minus-Steve Jobs era (1985-1997) is an example when their foray into the Mac-PC (the PowerPC) world almost saw their doom.

Bearing in mind the process and the follow-through needed for an idea to be implemented successfully, innovation can today mean survival for some organizations. Such was the case during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when all of a sudden, customer demand and the mode of doing business normally has radically changed. Unlike a business disruption that the pandemic brought upon us, the need for innovation can be broadly seen from the S-curve of business4. Dynamic systems usually go through a cycle; so does a business endeavor. The challenge is to have the wisdom and insight to know where one is in the cycle. Hence, when should one emphasize more on innovation to generate the next S-curve of growth. It is like managing a dynamic system.

Impact of the Changing Work Culture on Innovation

Majority of workers are now working-from-home or in a hybrid arrangement in the hope to mitigate the pandemic. Concomitantly, organizations are also beginning to discover that the productivity-cost consideration is probably working out favorably. After all, the hybrid working model seems to be the model of the future. In fact, Google had announced a 2/3-day model last October.

How then would a hybrid work model impact innovation? The impact would be similar to the way teamwork is impacted in an organization. It is in the culture. Google, who ranked second to Apple as the most innovative company in 2021, did a study about the essence of teamwork5.

Project Aristotle found out that psychological safety is the most important factor for effective teamwork. Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. Innovation, similarly requires psychological safety for it to live and thrive healthily in an organization. The demonstration of psychological safety is the same as what we would do during our pre-pandemic days — promote self-awareness, demonstrate concern for others on the team, actively solicit questions, provide multiple ways for sharing ideas, show appreciation and value for ideas, promote positive dialogue and discussions, etc. What has changed significantly now is the reduced opportunity to have face-to-face meetings. The meeting at the doorway is now replaced with a zoom link that needs to be triggered. Engaging coworkers is today more intentional than serendipitous, and this cuts both ways.

Food for Thought

Innovation is necessary for the growth and survival of any organization. It may not be earth-shattering innovations, but innovation nonetheless that leads to progress, specific or in general. For product or services, innovation is inevitable. The status quo is not sustainable against increased cost and lower margins over time. It is in the culture, and this is an everyday and everybody’s affairs. Inconsistencies and double standards breed discord and cynicism and many other toxins in the work environment. It is in your people, collectively, not just your brainiest, intellects or techies. Firing on all cylinders, as they say.

  • Where is your organization/ division/ team in the innovation journey, and hence your S-curve?
  • Does your current work culture support of the innovation that is needed?
  • Finally,

  • how might I better contribute to innovation in the current work mode?

1 HBR, If Your Innovation Effort Isn’t Working, Look at Who’s on the Team by Nathan Furr, Kyle Nel, and Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, November 09, 2018
2 HBR, Creativity Is Not Enough by Theodore Levitt, from the AUGUST 2002 issue.
3 McKinsey Quarterly, Creating an innovation culture, September 28, 2017, Commentary.
4 https://thebusinessprofessor.com/en_US/business-management-amp-operations-strategy-entrepreneurship-amp-innovation/s-curve-definition
5 https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/



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